Wandering Stars

Books

“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. Tommy Orange demonstrates the veracity of that line in Wandering Stars, his follow-up to There There, the 2018 debut novel for which he was a Pulitzer finalist. Few literary debuts are as chillingly of-the-moment as There There, which spanned a huge cast of Native American characters and culminated in a tragedy at an Oakland powwow. Orange further explores the lives of some of those characters in this assured continuation.

Orange pulls off a neat sleight of hand in Wandering Stars: He limits the scope by focusing on only a few characters, yet he also expands his narrative by rewinding to the 19th and early 20th centuries to tell the story of ancestors of the Red Feather family.

The book begins with the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, when the U.S. Army attacked Cheyenne and Arapaho people in present-day Colorado. As Orange puts it, “seven hundred drunken men came at dawn with cannons,” and killed hundreds of Native Americans—a prolongation of “America’s longest war.”

One of the survivors was Jude Star, a mute man sent by train as a prisoner of war to a fortress in St. Augustine, Florida. The man the army chose to run the prison was Richard Henry Pratt. Years later, Pratt founded the Carlisle School, to which Native American parents were forced to send their children to be “taught that everything about being Indian was wrong.” Jude’s son, Charles Star, is enrolled there. By the early 1900s, Charles develops an addiction to laudanum and tries to interview an aging Pratt to learn about his father.

The novel then shifts to 2018, when Orvil Red Feather, a survivor of the tragedy in There There, is trying to overcome his injuries and emotional trauma. Like Charles, he turns to drugs, in his case with the help of his friend Sean, whose father sets up a basement lab and starts his own pharmacopeia. He also tries to piece together the story of his Cheyenne family history, although Opal, the great-aunt with whom he and his younger brothers live, isn’t forthcoming about their heritage.

The style of the first part of the book is different from the second, more modern half. If the result feels like two separate books, there’s still much to recommend Wandering Stars, from Orange’s sensitive depiction of Orvil’s path to recovery to the chronicling of important, overlooked moments in the brutal history of America’s treatment of its Indigenous people. As Opal laments, Native Americans have been “consistently dehumanized and misrepresented in the media and in educational institutions.” Wandering Stars is an impassioned censure of that marginalization.

Read Tommy Orange’s essay on the writing of Wandering Stars.

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